The most impressive and fascinating aspect of African art is the strong visual message from the culture which created it. The message is that the culture presented to us is unlike our own to an extraordinary degree. The artifacts appear full of meaning. They have a grave and solemn presence or they hint at secret jokes. They embody a wealth of symbols but they are closed, sealed, wrapped in mysteries to the point of appearing ominous and menacing. This impression results when the viewer does not share the same culture and is not able to read the messages contained in those objects.
(figure available in print form)
Hogon priest and Blacksmitsh of Dogon Tribe Wood, 42.5 cm.
However, it is not difficult to appreciate the masks and sculpture for their design and form or for their vivid, animated style. On the other hand, sixth grade students are not sophisticated and do not find this level of art appreciation interesting enough to outweigh the problems they have dealing with the stylization of natural forms or the symbolic representation of beliefs and concepts.
Sixth grade students are selfconscious and easily embarrassed by the sexuality of some of the figures. They feel uneasy with the mystery or the unreadability of the symbolic meaning of the artifacts. And they do not respond to art in a manner other than as realistic portrayals of the world and its contents. They are impeded by their own cultural bias from enjoying or being intrigued by or wanting to know more about another culture’s art.
No teacher wants students to dismiss a whole world of art because of biased attitudes. Yet, if I bring in objects or pictures of African tribal art, they greet these examples with embarrassment and ridicule. To them, tribal art is the clumsy, inept product of a benighted race of man. Consequently, it is impossible to discuss the stylization of natural forms, or the symbolism used to convey meaning when confronted with cries of, “Oh, we don’t want to see that old junk!”
In order to study African art in depth and with serious intent, the students have to be willing to put aside their cultural bias. But more importantly, in order to be able to do so they have to develop an understanding of the culture that created the art. African art exists within its cultural context and cannot be understood without some preliminary groundwork in the study of the tribal life.
Until an atmosphere of receptivity is set up, the presentation and analysis of African art cannot be accomplished. If African art is treated as foolish nonsense, then the logical corollary is that the culture from which it arises is a nonsensical one. I don’t want the students to retain this false impression. The key to understanding the art is to understand the culture and understanding the culture is a key to receptivity of its art.
Therefore, I cannot overstate the importance of finding a device for putting the class into a receptive mood before they are shown African art. Empathy, the imaginative apprehension of another’s condition or state of mind, is a method a teacher can use to assist students to a more open and sympathetic attitude towards the art. If students can imagine what it is like to be a member of an African tribe, they will come to realize that the ritual and ceremony have a logic of their own that can be understood through an empathic response to it. And they will understand that the artifacts whose purpose it is to complement or comment on a particular culture’s rituals are no longer a closed secret world to laugh at or reject. The message is no longer unreadable.
A device that can be used to create an atmosphere of receptivity is a dialogue. Through a dialogue conducted by the teacher, an imaginary culture can be created by the students that emulates the origin of an African culture. The use of a dialogue allows the class as a whole to participate more fully in the development of an imaginary kingdom and ultimately to understand the creation of its art.
What follows is an edited transcription of a dialogue I conducted with my class. It is not, and because of the nature of the dialogue form, could not be repeated with the same results each time. I include it as an example of how the dialogue might be conducted.
(figure available in print form)
Dogon—Kanago Dance Mask